In 1990, the “Zora! Festival” in Eatonville, Florida (Zora’s birthplace) premiered — a singular festival dedicated to the American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. Though African-American and Southern historians had been well-aware of Hurston’s 1937 signature novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora had not yet reached the acclaim she deserved, despite Alice Walker carrying the baton for her since the 1970’s. The “Zora! Festival” brought new energy and focus to both Zora and her work, where luminaries such as Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Danny Glover, Cicely Tyson, Alice Walker, George C. Wolfe participated and committed to putting Zora more “on the map.” Twenty-seven years after the first “Zora! Festival,” more than 125,000 people attend annually.
In 1992, the Smithsonian Art Museum discovered a treasure trove of Zora’s 1920’s writings — folktales never before seen by the public; the collection was eventually called Every Tongue Got to Confess. Zora was the “Black writer of the moment” to many anthropology scholars, folklore enthusiasts, and southern literary mavens. Playwright Laurence Holder recognized how important these folktales were and used them and earlier ones as source material for a play he was creating about Zora. The first rendition of Holder’s play debuted in 1998; it was produced by The American Place and Woodie King, Jr.’s National Black Touring Circuit, featuring the same actors as the 2016 version — Joseph Lewis Edwards taking on the mantle of numerous male roles opposite Elizabeth Van Dyke as Zora. Holder’s play garnered raves and it helped secure Zora’s standing in both the Black and literary community. His updated version, Zora Neale Hurston: a Theatrical Biography recreates his earlier version with equal care and aplomb.
Richard Harmon’s set is bus station plain. There is a bench and a large block of wood. Covers from Zora’s books dangle from the ceiling — Moses Man of the Mountain, Mules and Men, Dust Tracks on a Road, and, of course, Their Eyes were Watching God, as well as two important front pieces from magazines. These touches add a nice texture and prominence to both Zora and the background of the set.
The actors make the characterless space come alive. Elizabeth Van Dyke (Zora Neale Hurston) shrouds Zora with the same purity and authority that she conveyed in the 1998 production. Zora never pandered to convention — Harlem Renaissance beliefs (Langston Hughes or Richard Wright) or white America politics. Zora walked her own path and was unwaveringly true to who she was and her ideas about art, politics, men and women, academia, and Black culture. Van Dyke towering performance is one that depicts Zora’s all these character traits, as well as having a vulnerability and zest for life.
The symbiotic relationship and chemistry between Van Dyke’s Zora and Joseph Lewis Edwards, who plays the four men who changes the course of her life — Langston Hughes, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and her husband Herbert — brings the play to life. Edwards brilliantly shape shifts with each character. In particular, Edwards as Langston Hughes captivates; his deliver of “The Weary Blues” is hypnotic and lingers like a hauntingly last note of a blues ballad.
Woodie King, Jr. (director) has been with the play from the very beginning. Mr. King works with Wynn Handman, who directed the original 1998 production; Mr. Handman serves as a consultant. Together they bring new energy to the 21st century version of the play. They overcome the confines of a small stage and create a bewitching journey through Zora’s life.
Zora loved hats, scarves and flamboyant dress-wear. Costume designer Gail Cooper-Hecht’s had access to the Zora Neale Hurston photo archives, and she chose 1920s flapper chic to best define the “Zora look” — a black Charleston Headband embroidered by a large feather and silver broche; a sable-trimmed bright red coat underlined with a vibrant blue scarf; and a dramatic scarf often tied below her hips.
Shirley Prendergast’s lighting and Bill Toles’ sound design and projections are conducive to the production and help define the various time periods.
Zora once said: “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.” Zora Neale Hurston: a Theatrical Biography cracks open the future – a future where Zora reigns as a literary Queen whose artistic gifts are no longer denied.
Zora Neale Hurston: a Theatrical Biography (through November 20, 2016)
Presented by New Federal Theatre, Woodie King, Jr. Producing Director, in association with Castillo Theatre
Castillo Theater, (543 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan)
For tickets, call 212-941-1234 or visit http://www.newfederaltheatre.com/more-info
Running time: one hour and 25 minutes without an intermission